Published: as Where Have All the Children Gone? Judy Picture Library #272
Reprinted: as Where are the Children? Mandy Picture Library #243
Artist: Mario Capaldi
In Victorian times, Flossie Ford is a poor slum girl that has made good and now runs her own florist shop in Cheapwell. The gentry are among her clients, including prim Miss Courtney and her bookworm brother Algernon Courtney. Flossie is particularly known for her buttonhole flowers. Still, Flossie has not forgotten her origins or her family, and can revert to Cockney, which she had to take special lessons to overcome.
Street children start disappearing from Cheapwell. Homeless, uncared-for waifs are the targets, but one exception is Flossie’s cousin Frankie Ludd, so it is personal for her and her Aunt Ada. Superintendent Spenser of the police recruits Flossie’s help because she can operate as both a Cockney in the slums and a respectable florist among the smart society; the police suspect someone in the smart society is behind the disappearances.
As the latter Flossie notices something odd when she arranges the flowers for Miss Courtney’s dinner party: one of their guests, Mr Warby-Bellowes is “one of their kings of industry”. Flossie is a bit surprised at this because Warby-Bellowes does not seem to be the sort who would appeal to the Courtneys, but she thinks nothing of it.
As the former, Flossie picks up a clue from the mudlarks that Frankie was buying a pie at Beck’s Wharf before he disappeared. At Beck’s Wharf, Flossie learns an old woman named Ma Jiggs bought the pie for Frankie, and she is now buying another pie for another waif. When Flossie asks Jiggs about Frankie, Jiggs denies all knowledge of him and says she just buys pies for waifs out of charity. However, Flossie senses Jiggs is mealy-mouthed and false, and therefore the sort who could lure children away with seeming kindness. But there is as yet no proof of this, and all Flossie can do is tell Spenser about Jiggs.
Next day Flossie is arranging flowers for a wedding at the home of another client, Mrs Leighton, where she sees Warby-Bellowes again. A maid named Carrie tries to tell Flossie she just found out something about Cheapwell while she was home in Blackscar, a town a long way from Cheapwell. But before Carrie can say more, Mrs Leighton expresses disapproval at her maid wasting time talking to tradespeople. Later, Warby-Bellowes visits the florist shop and also asks Flossie what Carrie was trying to tell her. Flossie finds this suspicious and says they were just talking about the wedding.
At the police station Flossie finds the police are questioning Jiggs, who denies any connection with the missing children and stands up to interrogation. They are forced to release her, but both they and Flossie are suspicious of her. Then Carrie stumbles into the station, all beaten up. Carrie falls into a coma and can’t be questioned, but Flossie reports what passed between them.
A week later, Flossie goes back to Beck’s Wharf in Cockney disguise, where she finds Jiggs is no longer buying pies for the waifs. Jiggs tells Flossie she lost a good job because of her. Flossie retorts what good job that could be. Yes, what could it be – luring children off, maybe? Flossie reports this to Spenser.
At the hospital Carrie regains consciousness but is too scared to tell Flossie and the police anything. The police think the kidnappers may lie low after the scare they had, but they are wrong. The disappearances merely shift to a new section of Cheapwell, Nine Arches, and friends of the disappeared children insist they must have been kidnapped. By now the disappearances are sending waves of fear and paranoia through the street waifs and the slum dwellers of Cheapwell.
Flossie hits on a plan to flush out the kidnappers. She sets herself up as a target at Nine Arches, along with her cousin Alfie and friend Bert, and the police will be shadowing them. The kidnappers take the bait. A man named Wilkes (evidently Ma Jiggs’ replacement) approaches them. Wilkes is dressed more respectably than Ma Jiggs but looks sinister and evil, and is soon tempting them away with promises of food and warm clothing at a shelter full of “sad little souls” like themselves. They allow Wilkes to lure them away and to a closed wagon, where he locks them in and says they are going to be put to work. Flossie peeks out through the cracks in the wagon and is stunned to learn that Wilkes is in the pay of none other than the prim Miss Courtney! Presumably Algernon is involved too.
The wagon takes them to (surprise, surprise!) Blackscar. They are put to work as (presumably unpaid) slave labour in a factory under a cruel overseer. They find Frankie, who has been badly beaten for trying to escape. They can’t escape without Spenser’s help, but he has lost the wagon and the trail. Fortunately the police pick up the wagon again and track it and Wilkes down to Warby-Bellowes. They overhear Wilkes telling Warby-Bellowes that the consignment was delivered safely (Spenser realises what this must mean) and more is promised. Spenser tackles Warby-Bellowes, who denies all knowledge about missing children. Spenser tells Warby-Bellowes he wants to pay a visit to his factories in the morning.
When the overseer is informed of this he hides the children. But Flossie leaves her calling card for the police – a buttonhole flower she put on the overseer. Spenser spots the clue immediately, orders an immediate search of the factory, and finds the kidnapped children.
The racket is exposed and stopped. The horror makes shock waves in the press, with photographs of the three racketeers on the front page. To reduce the chances of a repeat, Aunt Ada offers a home for homeless waifs. Flossie finds her shop is now even more popular and people keep asking her to tell the story over and over.
The racket is not unlike the one in Girl 2’s “Slaves of the Nightmare Factory”, in which a racket targets and kidnaps runaways and uses them as slave labour in a dress factory. The ways in which the children are kidnapped in both stories is very similar (lured away by false charity before being thrown into a vehicle and carted off to the slave factory) although one is set in Victorian times and the other in modern times.
Unlike Nightmare Factory, this story is not told from the point of view of the abducted children and their struggle to survive, escape and expose the racket. It is told from the point of view of the people who are trying to find them. This gives the slave story the perspective of a detective story and a mystery that needs to be unravelled and a different take on the group slave story formula, which makes a nice change.
Again unlike Nightmare Factory, the abductees are lucky that the disappearances are noticed as soon as they start and alert people. The racketeers clearly played on the notion that nobody cared about homeless waifs, so nobody would even notice they were gone. If Wilkes has anything to go by, they may even have justified their actions in their own minds with the excuse they were doing the waifs and society a favour by clearing them off the streets and giving them employment. Of course the real reason is greed and making handsome profits by using slave labour instead of paid (if cheap) help. But they made the mistake of taking children who were not homeless waifs, such as Frankie Ludd, which did get noticed and raised the alarm. (This mistake is similar to the one the racketeers in Nightmare Factory eventually make.) The racketeers also made the mistake of assuming nobody would care about the waifs. There were people who did, including Flossie and the police.
Flossie would make the old tried-and-true serial of a poor girl who rises above her poverty to become a great success through her talent for floristry if DCT had gone down that avenue with her. Instead, they give her the perfect vantage point to turn detective on behalf of the police in tracking down the disappeared children. Flossie has the best of both worlds for the job, with her slum origins that enable her to investigate the slums and her floristry reputation and connections to high society that enable her to investigate the gentry. She picks up clues at both ends, without which the police would never have cracked the case. And Flossie did it so well that none of the racketeers realised the florist and the slum girl were one and the same. The flowers do their part as well. Arranging them gives Flossie access to the homes of the gentry to do investigating, and Flossie’s trademark buttonhole flowers enable her to leave a call for help on the cruel overseer without making him suspicious.
Unfortunately the Courtney racketeers put on such convincing shows of respectability that Flossie did not suspect them. Flossie was completely fooled by Miss Courtney’s conduct of being a prim old maid who was so absorbed with her house, while her brother Algernon never seemed to do anything other than read books. Flossie thought Miss Courtney had probably never even heard of homeless waifs, much less know anything about the missing ones. When Flossie finds Miss Courtney out, she learns the hard way that appearances can be so deceiving. Fortunately Warby-Bellowes was not as clever as the Courtneys and made mistakes that made Flossie suspicious.
If Flossie had been a serial, there was scope to use her in more detective stories on behalf of the police, using her slum background to move among the slum areas, her floristry to probe the gentry, and leave flower trails for the police to follow. But she was a picture story library, which have few sequels.